Last week Arsenal agreed a deal with Socios.com, becoming the latest major sports property to engage with fan tokens. Inter Milan and Valencia are among others to have gone a step further with their respective deals, agreeing a front-of-shirt partnership with the fan-engagement platform. It represents a technological shift in professional sport, in which blockchain becomes more and more commercially prevalent. Crypto.com’s recent deals with the UFC and in F1 showed that cryptocurrency’s place in the world of sports sponsorship is perhaps just getting started, with nine figure deals that could well have an impact on the prevalence of partnerships with betting companies. Fan tokens represent a shift in the type of conventional commercial agreements, a shift which sees the rights holder gain twice; funds from the deal itself, before benefiting again when the fan tokens are purchased by supporters. The deals also provide an opportunity for clubs to understand better the fans that they serve, increasing channels of communication and connecting with global audiences. Not everyone has been fully receptive to this new concept – and the extent to which this could be scaled down to less global properties is potentially limited. Nevertheless, outlets like Socios.com represent change, a modernisation of sports sponsorship and a model that, if done right, has the potential to give fans the feeling that they are better connected to the clubs they follow week in, week out.

How does it work?

This piece ties together some of the previous writing for this blog. At its inception, we looked at how crypto was an emerging category that had the potential to oust the less favourable, outgoing betting sponsorship deals. More recently, we engaged with the topic of football fan engagement, how it is becoming increasingly essential that fans feel connected to the clubs that are supposed to represent their cities or areas. The idea of fan tokens serves to combine the two stories as blockchain technology is used by these platforms to give fans a say in some of the decisions that are taken by the club. On the face of it, the idea of increased fan participation should always be welcomed. As part of their contracts with Socios, clubs are committed to a set number of binding and non-binding polls that their fans can take part in throughout the season. The model itself is simple in a world of blockchain complexity: Fans are permitted to buy tokens using Chiliz ($CHZ) in the same way they would transact any e-commerce purchase. The token is merely a right to vote, and one token is all that is needed to participate in as many of the polls as the buyer desires. There is a possibility to buy more than one token to increase your share of voice, though the amount one person can own is capped to avoid a skewed poll. The use of blockchain technology means that every transaction is secure, stable and recorded – so there is no way for the club to alter the results of the poll.

Can the polls connect fans with their clubs?

Several questions emerge from this new fan engagement tool. The first surrounds the polls themselves. A look at what has already been done points towards this being a success as some of the pre-existing examples would undeniably serve to connect fanbases with their clubs. Whether it’s choosing the design of the new team bus, which song the players should walk out to or choosing the players that will be part of the next social media ‘takeover’, the polls are relatively broad. Cosmetic to some, connective to others, it is up to the clubs to decide which direction they go with their surveys, meaning the level of connection with those who can vote is dependent on how the club uses the service. The reception from fans has not been universally warm. West Ham became the first English club to partner with the company back in 2019 and the backlash was quick to follow. Supporter groups led a ‘Don’t Pay To Have Your Say’ campaign, claiming that a team that had been part of the community for 125 years should not require further funds to enable fans to have a voice. This itself leads onto perhaps the main stumbling block for these platforms.

The roster of the clubs partnered with Socios is continually growing and, increasingly, the clubs involved are those who have global fanbases. This is deliberate, as the desire of the fan tokens is to involve those that do not attend games. Indeed, Alex Dreyfus, CEO of Socios.com, made the point that “99.9% of sports fans aren’t in the stadium or even in the same city as the team they support.” If a supporter from Asia cannot attend a game but can influence which song the players come out to, affinity for the club in a whole region could grow. What’s more, in the wake of the European Super League, the idea of fan engagement has never been more prominent. Monetising such engagement, though, is potentially problematic. Many fans already pay yearly subscriptions to become members, the idea of further outlays to ensure a share of voice points towards the desire for clubs to merely maximise revenue. Further, empowering the idea of giving a voice to those who don’t attend games presupposes that those that do already have a say in the running’s of their clubs. As the ESL revealed, this isn’t exactly the case.

However, maximising revenue is much less of a problem for supporters if revenue goes towards improving the first-team squad. And while more money for any club is an essential indicator of increased on-field success, these new sponsorships perhaps represent a shift away from betting deals that are becoming increasingly phased out of the professional game. It stands to reason that there is something to be said for a consumer’s engagement with a sponsor resulting in putting money back into the club they follow, rather than on something as potentially sinister as betting. Malcolm Clarke, Chair of the Football Supporters’ Association for England and Wales, disagrees – claiming that fan tokens give fans a cosmetic say in how clubs are operated, merely a way to “squeeze extra money out of supporters”.

The fan token market has boomed since its inception, with the industry reportedly worth $260m, a 900% increase on the figure from this time last year. However, any industry rooted in crypto technology must accept the volatility of the market. The crypto crash earlier this year meant that fan tokens plunged with the rest of the market. Nevertheless, many of Europe’s biggest clubs have got on board and the number of platforms is itself diversifying. Bitci have emerged as a competition to Socios, offering the same services to numerous national football teams, F1, Wolves and Rangers among others. The space is innovative and different and therefore faces resistance. If done well, the opportunity to foster the relationship between club and fans is a real possibility across varying sports. But if done badly and with the wrong rights-holders, the risk of alienating supporters is undeniably present.